White Coats for Black Lives organized a Kneel for Justice event last Friday where our campus colleagues gathered in solidarity in a call for racial justice and health equity. Across the heart of the Anschutz Medical Campus between Children’s Hospital Colorado and Research Complex 2, several hundred people kneeled to remember George Floyd. The event also called for us to commit ourselves to work for changes in health care, law enforcement, education, elections, and other systems that deny equal treatment for black people in our communities. We will never reach our potential as a society when people are oppressed due to the color of their skin. Black Lives Matter.
As those who gathered kneeled, Regina Richards, PhD, MSW, director of the School’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, rallied those who assembled with comments about standing up for change. “We stand for systemic change,” Regina said. “We refute systemic racism. We stand together because if we don’t stand together, we continue to fall individually....We must change the system from mistrust to trustworthy. We stand because we must. We stand for those that have no voice. We stand for the vulnerable. We stand today because black lives matter. It’s not a slogan. It is truth.”
Even as we call for change in our society, we must constantly evaluate ourselves and do more. The School has been in the process of updating its curriculum so that it includes a comprehensive emphasis on social factors that contribute to health disparities. The School has committed funding to support recruitment of faculty from underrepresented backgrounds. Similarly, we have worked with donors and funders to provide scholarships and we have committed matching funds to increase the pool. These are valuable steps, but we know they are not enough. We can and will do more to ensure equal access and fair treatment.
On Wednesday last week, I addressed the state of our society and the urgent need for long-overdue reforms in a letter distributed to the students of the School of Medicine. I am sharing that letter in this week’s message to campus.
Students of the University Colorado School of Medicine:
At the CU School of Medicine, we strive to teach you the science underlying human health and disease, and we train you in the skills needed to take a patient’s history, do an exam, and interpret test results to reach a diagnosis. When we take time to consider American society as our patient, recent exam and test results offer troubling indicators: the COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately affecting communities of color, and the ongoing unjustified taking of black lives. The diagnosis is clear: the patient has cancer. Like cancer affecting individuals, this cancer harming our society has many names. Racism, economic inequality, prejudice, injustice, and what many in our profession refer to as the social determinants of health are just some of them. As with any cancer, our goal is to understand the origins of the ailment and to devise strategies to prevent or eliminate it.
2020 has been an extraordinarily difficult year. The spread of the global pandemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the measures implemented to control the pandemic have had devastating economic impacts, including the loss of millions of jobs. In recent days, through continuous news reports, we have witnessed in graphic detail the indefensible treatment and death of George Floyd while in the custody of police officers. Sadly, his death is not an isolated incident. As a white couple raising our children in the suburbs of Boston, Lise and I worried about our children getting into trouble in high school, but we never worried that they would have a lethal encounter with law enforcement. Unfortunately, African-American and Latino parents cannot make a similar statement. We have heard about “the talk” African-American parents have with their sons as they enter adolescence. Again last week, we were confronted with evidence about why parents feel the need to have that talk.
George Floyd’s death and the graphic evidence of unacceptable and lethal treatment of people of color, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 and its disparities in mortality, shines a bright spotlight on what many people know but too often try to minimize or ignore. Despite substantial progress in recent years, we still have a society in which ethnic and racial prejudices and disparate treatment deny many people the condition that our nation professes as the American ideal, equal opportunity for all.
In an increasingly divided society, we in medicine are one of the few professions that regularly interact with people from all walks of life, all ethnic and religious backgrounds, all strata of economic resources who seek medical guidance, diagnosis, and therapy. We see people in their best moments and we see them during the worst times of their lives. We are usually treated as their trusted partners and advisors. As practitioners of scientifically based medical care, we have an obligation to share the evidence of the impact that the social determinants of health have on our patients. In the same way that we strive to develop new therapeutic interventions to treat disease, we also must work to develop and advocate for new policies and approaches that mitigate or eliminate poverty, childhood malnutrition, exposure to trauma and violence, inadequate educational opportunities, and discriminatory behaviors that adversely affect health over the course of one’s lifetime. We view having a diverse student body and faculty as a core strategy to achieve these goals, and we will continue our efforts to enhance diversity at all levels within the School.
You were admitted to the School of Medicine based on our judgment that you have the talent, drive, and values to advance our mission of improving the health of all. Our job is to help equip you with the knowledge, the tools, and the support you need so that you will be successful in this mission. In doing so, you will make our society and country better.
To quote Robert Kennedy from a speech he gave in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, after learning of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King: “We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.” We have made progress in the ensuing 52 years but current events clearly demonstrate that we still have much to do.
I close with the words of President Barack Obama from his recent statement regarding the death of George Floyd:
“It’s natural to wish for life ‘to just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ – whether it’s while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park.
“This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal.’ If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.
“It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is ultimately done. But it falls on all of us, regardless or our race or station – including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day – to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
It should go without saying, but I will state it explicitly: the University of Colorado School of Medicine is committed to better health for all, which means we are committed to diversity, equal opportunity, equal access to medical care, and the elimination of health disparities. We are committed to being a positive force for change in medicine and, in turn, society as a whole.
A final note on our campus re-opening efforts. Last Friday, some 1,800 people passed through the check-in points. I would like to thank everyone who has been contributing to the effort to get our campus buildings reactivated safely. This is also a reminder that anyone working in University campus buildings must complete the Skillsoft training, “CU: COVID-19 Return to Campus - CU Denver | Anschutz.” Each day you are on campus, you also need to complete an online questionnaire, wear your CU Anschutz badge and a face covering, and you need to go to a check-in point to get a temperature check and pick up a wristband that you are to wear when you are on campus that day. It is not difficult and is an important step in maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. These expectations apply to those who have been invited to return and to clinicians who have been working on campus during the COVID-19 response and will be working in University buildings. According to a report by the Chancellor’s office on Friday, there are some – too many – people who have not been following these simple steps. Those who fail to comply will have their badge access to campus buildings turned off, so I emphasize that these steps are not voluntary. If you are working in University buildings on campus, you must follow these guidelines. For details about working on campus, go the Return to Campus webpage.
John J. Reilly, Jr., MD
Richard D. Krugman Endowed Chair
Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and
Dean, School of Medicine